A chilling episode that might be too scary for the adults, let alone the kids…
Given the general praise for series nine openers The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar the next episode of Doctor Who was always going to have its work cut out. For every The Impossible Astronaut / Day Of The Moon there is The Curse of the Black Spot. As such, Toby Whitehouse really has his work cut out with the following two-parter and if Under The Lake is anything to go by, it delivered.
I have to admit, I’ve always been a bit trepidatious of Toby Whitehouse’s episodes. While School Reunion was a classic, I’ve never quite loved his later episodes; even The God Complex was missing something for me. But this episode was some of his best work yet, with Whitehouse’s script delivering some of the chills and menace we saw in his brilliant Being Human. It helps again that we have another two-parter that allows the story to breath without a rushed ending and another bloody good cliffhanger; the death of the Doctor.
Yes, he’s not really dead, just like Missy and Clara couldn’t really have died at the end of The Magician’s Apprentice but it sets up an intriguing premise that the follow up – next week’s Before The Flood – will have to work hard to pay off in a satisfactory manner. Still, it is great to have weekly – or fortnightly – cliffhangers to enjoy and half the endings to classic episodes teased the death of the Doctor, or the companion, or both, so really it’s a tradition that harks back to Doctor Who of old.
Of course the most memorable things about Under The Lake is just how scary it really is. From the first appearance of the recently killed Moran as a ghost – black chasms where his eyes should be – to the moment the two ghosts come dangerously close to the Doctor and Clara’s faces when they arrive on the base. You can feel the tension, the anxiety, the panic rising, particularly the moment when the ghosts switch the base back to ‘night mode’ and hunt down poor Pritchard by switching off the airlock and drowning him as he watches them helplessly.
From here the episode really enters horror movie territory. The scene where Bennett and Clara encounter the ghost of Pritchard in the rec room, his back to them, is very creepy because you know what is coming. When his corpse sails past the window and he turns towards them the episodes builds on one frantic scare after another, from Bennett, Lunn and Clara using themselves as bait to lure the three ghosts into the Faraday catch to the moment Pritchard’s ghost traps Lunn, raising the spanner to kill him – Whitehouse’s script conjures the terrors of Being Human in a way that is chilling for adults, let alone any poor children that might be watching. Doctor Who has always had scary moments but this was an episode where I decided my kids were definitely too young to watch.
“I’m very sorry for the loss. I’ll do all I can to solve the death of your friend slash family member slash pet.”
Of course, as scary as Under The Lake is there is still plenty of room for great character moments and humour. Largely separated in the opening two-parter of series nine, we see a much closer Doctor and Clara dynamic here and it is great to explore how much she brings to their relationship, acting as the moral, humanistic balance in his life. But on the flip side her willingness to jump into danger is also worrying. She might share the Doctor’s thirst for adventure but her determination to face the enemy head on, at personal risk to herself, suggests that she might not meet a happy ending come the end of series nine. Oh and a lovely scene in the TARDIS where the Doctor expresses concern for her duty of care; magnificent performances from Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman both.
The rest of the cast are great too. Steven Robertson plays the same kind of smarmy government stooge we saw him play in the later series of Being Human but still has enough warmth to him that you genuinely feel sorry for him when he meets his grizzly end. I also liked Sophie Stone’s intrepid leader Cass; she might have been deaf but she wasn’t a victim, taking charge and managing the crisis in a controlled manner. Zaqi Ismail’s Lunn was also a genuinely endearing character, working well with Clara and again I worried for his fate in that tense bait scene. They were also intelligent , asking the right questions, not making stupid decisions in a crisis and genuinely being a realistic, engaging bunch.
And the mystery was strong too; an alien signal controlled through the ghosts sending out co-ordinates through a cryptic message. The clues evolved naturally – the Doctor, Clara and the crew working together as a team – and with all the scary moments and tense situations the pacing didn’t feel slow at all. It was an episode that harked back to the Patrick Troughton ‘base under siege’ stories and it was great for it. After the dramatic events of The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar it was a smaller, more traditional episode but it didn’t feel any less watchable.
In fact I would go as far to say that the quality of the start of series nine is continuing apace in a way that feels more confident, more well-crafted and more thrilling than the arguably strong series eight. As with any two-parter the proof is in the conclusion, but on its own Under The Lake is another strong entry in the Doctor Who canon.
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